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Europe: The Danger From The Center

Europe: The Danger of the Center

Foreign Policy In Focus

June 13, 2017

 

The good news out of Europe is that Marine Le Pen’s neo-Nazi National Front took a beating in the May 7 French presidential election. The bad news is that the program of the winner, Emmanuel Macron, might put Le Pen back in the running six years from now.

 

Macron pledges to cut 120,000 public jobs, reduce spending by 60 billion Euros, jettison the 35-hour workweek, raise the retirement age, weaken unions’ negotiating strength and cut corporate taxes. It is a program that is unlikely to revive the morbid French economy, but it will certainly worsen the plight of jobless youth and seniors and hand the National Front ammunition for the 2022 election.

 

Europe is enmeshed in an economic crisis brought on by the structure of the European Union (EU), on one hand, and the nature of capitalism, on the other. That convergence has derailed economies throughout the 27-member trade group, impoverished tens of millions, and helped conjure up racist, rightwing movements that are not likely to be deterred by a few election losses.

 

Obscuring the roots of this crisis is the myth that debt is the result of spendthrift behavior, the economic sluggishness a consequence of high taxes, and rigid labor rules that handcuff businesses and inhibit growth. German Chancellor Angela Merkel is fond of saying that countries should behave like a “frugal Swabian house frau.”

 

Is Merkel’s observation bases on a myth or is it allegory? While an allegory is the “figurative treatment of one subject under the guise of another,” a myth is “an unproven or false collective belief that is used to justify a social institution.” The difference may seem pedantic, however, it is anything but, and, because myths are particularly hard to dislodge once they become widespread, it is essential to unpack exactly how the EU got itself in trouble.

 

Part of the problem is capitalism itself, an economic system that generates both enormous productive capacity and economic chaos.

 

Capitalism is afflicted by two kinds of crisis, cyclical and structural. The cyclical ones—recessions—tend to occur pretty much every 10 ten years. The U.S. and Europe went through recessions in the early 1980s, early 1990s, and the first years of 2000. They are painful and unpleasant but generally over in about 18 months.

 

Every 40 or 50 years, however, there is a structural crisis like the 1929 crash and the ensuing Great Depression.

 

When a structural crisis hits, capitalism re-organizes itself. In the 1930s, the solution was to create a re-distributive capitalism that used the power of the state to prime the economic pump and alleviate some of the chaos that accompanies such re-organizations. Unemployment insurance and Social Security took some of the edge off the pain, public works absorbed some of the jobless, and unions got the right to organize and strike.

 

Capitalism went through another structural crisis at the end of the 1970s, and it is the fallout from that one that currently plagues the EU—and the U.S. Using the 1979-81 recession as a screen, taxes on corporations and the wealthy were slashed, business and finance de-regulated, public institutions privatized, and unions assaulted. Capitalism also went global.

 

Globalism did spur enormous growth, but with a deep flaw. With unions weakened—in part by direct attack, in part by the enormous pool of cheap labor now available in the developing world—wages either stagnated or fell in Europe and the U.S., and the gap between rich and poor widened. A 2015 study by Oxfam found that 1 percent of humanity now controls over half the world’s wealth, and the top 20 percent owns 94.5 percent. In short, 80 percent of the world gets by on 5.5 percent of the world’s wealth.

 

This is not just a problem for the developing and under developed world. Germany has the biggest economy in the EU, and the fourth largest in the world. In 2000, Germany’s top 20 percent earned 3.5 percent more than the bottom 20 percent. Today that number has increased five times. For the bottom 10 percent, income has actually fallen. While earnings are up 6 percent, the cost of living has increased 24 percent. If that Swabian house frau was among that 10 percent, it didn’t make a whole lot of difference how frugal she was, she was broke.

 

Globalization generated instability by creating a crisis of accumulation. A few people had lots of money, but far too many had very little, certainly not enough to absorb the output of the global economy. Global capitalism was awash with cash, but where to use it? The answer was financial speculation—especially since many of the restraints and safety measures had been removed through deregulation.

 

For Europe, most of that speculation went into land. Land prices in Spain and Ireland rose 500 percent from 1999 to 2007. In the case of Ireland, it was almost unreal. Irish real estate loans went from 5 billion Euros in 1999 to 96.2 billion Euros in 2007, or more than half the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of the Republic. Over the same period, European household debt increased on the average by 39 percent.

 

That this was a bubble was obvious and all bubbles pop sooner or later. This one exploded in the U.S. in late 2007 and quickly spread to Europe.

 

What is important to keep in mind is that the EU countries that got in trouble were hardly spendthrifts. Spain, Portugal, and Ireland all had modest debt ratios and budget surpluses at the time of the crisis.

 

The problem was not prodigal governments but a sudden hike in borrowing rates, which made it expensive to finance government operations. That was coupled with a decision to use taxpayer money to bail out banks that had gotten themselves in trouble speculating on real estate. Essentially, Portuguese, Spaniards, Greeks and Irish picked up the debts of banks they had never borrowed anything from.

 

Irish taxpayers shelled out 30 billion Euros to bailout the Irish-Anglo bank, a figure equivalent to the Republic’s tax revenues for an entire year. Since none of these countries had that kind of money on hand, they applied for “bailouts” from the International Monetary Fund, the European Central Bank, and the European Commission, the so-called “troika.” Some 89 percent of those bailouts went to banks. The day the Greek bailout was announced, French bank shares rose 24 percent.

 

It was not that EU countries were debt free, but in 2014, the Committee for a Citizen’s Audit on the Public Debt found that between 60 and 70 percent of those debts were due not to overspending, but instead tax cuts for corporations and the wealthy, and increases in interest rates. The latter favors creditors and speculators. The Committee found that most deficits were the result of “political decisions” that shift the wealth from one class to another.

 

In the long run, some of that debt will have to be forgiven because it is simply unpayable. The 1952 London Debt Convention that cut Germany’s post-war debt and ignited an economic revival could serve as a template.

 

Converging with this crisis of capitalism is the way the EU is structured, although the two are hardly independent of one another. Many of EU’s strictures were specifically designed to favor capital and finance and to marginalize the control that the Union’s 500 million members have over economic matters.

 

The first problem is that all economic decisions are made by the “troika,” an unelected body that answers to no one. There is a European Parliament, but it has little power or control over finance. The same is true for EU member governments. When former Greek Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis told German Finance Minister Wolfgang Wolfgang Schauble that his left-wing Syriza Party was elected to resist the austerity policies of the EU, Schuable replied, “We cannot possibly let an election change anything.”

 

The second problem is that national governments have no control over the value of the Euro. Of the EU’s 27 members, 19 of them use the common currency and make up the Eurozone. Germany’s condition for giving up the Mark and adopting the Euro was that Eurozone members were required to keep budget deficits to no more than 3 percent of national income, and debt levels to no higher than 60 percent of GDP. While that formula works well for Germany’s powerful export model, it doesn’t for of a number of other Eurozone economies.

 

The Euro’s value is set by the European Central Bank, which means that members cannot devalue their currency, a common strategy for dealing with debt, and one near and dear to the U.S. Treasury. As long as it’s smooth sailing, this rule works, but when a financial crisis hits, the common currency and the debt restrictions can mean big trouble for the smaller, less export-centered economies. When the financial bubble popped in 2008, countries like Italy, Spain, Portugal and Ireland—and to a certain extent, France—saw their debts soar, with strategies for dealing with it hamstrung by the Eurozone rules.

 

And that is when the third problem with the Eurozone kicked in. While there is a common currency, there is no sharing of debt through tax receipts. In a single currency system like the U.S., powerful economies in California and New York pay for bills in places like Mississippi and Louisiana.

 

Some 44 percent of Louisiana’s state budget is paid for by the federal government, which collects taxes in wealthy states and doles out some of it to regions whose economies are either too small or inefficient to meet their budget needs. If you get into trouble in the Eurozone, you are on your own.

 

While the EU has been good for banks and countries like Germany and Austria, it hasn’t been so good for many other of its members. Applying austerity as a cure for debt doesn’t cure the problem, it just creates a spiral of more debt and yet more austerity. As Rana Foroohar, business columnist for the Financial Times put it, “No nation can grow when the consumer, the corporate sector, and the public sector stop spending.”

 

Because most the center-left parties bought into the austerity-as-a-cure-for-debt formula, they have been devastated at the polls. The Dutch Labor Party was crushed in the last election, the French Socialists got less than 7 percent of the vote, and the Spanish Socialists are barely keeping ahead of the much more left Podemos Party. The Italian Socialist Party has dropped over 15 points in the polls and is now running behind the rather bizarre Five Star Movement. The Greek Socialists are a footnote.

 

The lesson for the left would seem to be that moving to the center or the right is a prescription for electoral disaster,

 

Macron’s new centrist party, En Marche!, won, but mostly due to the anti-Le Pen vote. His program of austerity, restraints on unions, and corporate tax cuts is popular with everyone, although En Marche! did well in the first round of voting for the legislature, and poll indicate he may get a majority. If he does not, he plans to push the measures through by decree.

 

It is unlikely that such a centrist program will do anything to reduce France’s unemployment rate—9.6 percent overall and 25 percent among youth age 18 to 29—or lift the economy. Labor “reform” and austerity do not jump start economies, and tax cuts have an equally dreary record. Indeed, as Foroohar points out, there is not a single example in the last 20 years where tax cuts for business or the wealthy stimulated an economy. Indeed, the economic surge in the 1990s happened while tax rates were on the rise.

 

If the economic situation worsens, or even stays the same, the right will be waiting to pounce with their easy answers to economic crisis: nationalism and racism.

 

The clock is ticking. Germany will hold elections in September, and it looks as if Italy will also go to the polls this fall. In Spain, the right-wing minority government is looking increasingly fragile and another election is a strong possibility.

 

Center-left parties are doing well in Portugal, where the Socialists have made common cause with two more leftist parties. In Britain the Labour Party’s sharp break with the Party’s centrism upended the Conservative Party, denied it a majority in Parliament. A recent YouGov poll found that a majority of Britains supported Labour’s left-wing platform over the Conservatives’ austerity program.

 

The Portuguese coalition is demonstrating that there are successful economic models out there to deal with debt and growth that don’t impoverish the many for the benefit of a few. The question is, can the left in Italy, Spain and Germany put together programs that tap into the seething unrest that globalism’s inequality has generated?

 

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Europe’s Elections and The Barbarians

Europe’s Elections

Dispatches From The Edge

Mar. 17, 2017

 

Going in to the recent elections in the Netherlands, the mainstream story seemed lifted from William Butler Yeats poem, The Second Coming: ”Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold—The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.” The Right was on the march, the Left at war with itself, the traditional parties adrift, and the barbarians were hammering at the gates of the European Union.

 

It’s a grand image, a sort of a politics as the “Game of Thrones,” but the reality is considerably more complex. There is, of course, some truth in the apocalyptic imagery: rightwing parties in the Netherlands, France, and Germany have grown. There are indeed some sharp divisions among left parties. And many Europeans are pretty unhappy with those that have inflicted them with austerity policies that have tanked living standards for all but a sliver of the elite.

 

But there are other narratives at work in Europe these days besides an HBO mega series about blood, war, and treachery.

 

The recent election in the Netherlands is a case in point. After holding a lead over all the other parties, Geert Wilders rightwing, racist Party for Freedom (PVV) faltered. In the end, his Islamophobes did not break the gates (but they did pick up five seats). Overall it was a victory for the center, but it was also a warning for those who advocate “staying the course” politics and, most pointedly the consequences of abandoning principles for power.

 

The Left Greens did quite well by taking on Wilders’ anti-Islam agenda and challenging Prime Minister Mark Rutte’s center-right Popular Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD) on the economic front. In one national debate, Jesse Klaver, the Left Green’s dynamic leader, argued that janitors should be paid more and bankers less. The election, he said, is not about “Islam and Muslims,” but about “housing, income and health care.” The voters clearly bought it.

 

Rutte’s coalition partner, the left Labour Party, was crushed, losing 29 seats. For the past four years Labour has gone along with Rutte’s program of raising the retirement age and cutting back social spending, and voters punished them for shelving their progressive politics for a seat at the table.

 

The VVD also lost eight seats, which probably went to centrist parties like Democrats66, suggesting that Rutte’s “business as usual” is not what voters want either . VVD is still the number one party in the 150-seat parliament.

 

There were some lessons from the Dutch elections, though not the simplistic one that the “populist” barbarians lost to the “reasonable” center. What it mainly demonstrated is that voters are unhappy with the current situation, they are looking for answers, and parties on the left and center left should think carefully about joining governments that think it “reasonable” to impoverish their own people.

 

Next up in the election docket is France, where polls show Marine Le Pen’s neo-Nazi National Front leading the pack in a five-way race with traditional rightwing candidate Francois Fillon, centrist and former Socialist Party member Emmanuel Macron, Socialist Party candidate Benoit Hamon, and leftist Jean-Luc Melenchon. The first round, scheduled for April 23, will eliminate all but the two top vote getters. A final round will be held May 7.

 

With Melenchon and Hamon running at 11.5 percent and 13.5 percent respectively, thus splitting the left vote, the race appears to be between Fillon, Macron and Le Pen, with the latter polling slightly ahead of Macron and considerably better than Fillon.

 

If you are is attracted to the apocalypse analogy, France is probably your ticket.

 

Le Pen is running a campaign aimed against anyone who doesn’t look like Charlemagne or Joan of Arc, but her strong anti-EU positions play well with young people, in small towns, and among rural inhabitants. All three groups have been left behind by the EU’s globalism policies that have resulted in de-industrialization and growing economic inequality. Polls indicate she commands 39 percent of 18 to 24 year olds, compared with 21 percent for Macron and 21 percent for Fillon.

 

Fillon has been wounded by the revelation that he has been using public funds to pay family members some $850,000 for work they never did. But even before the scandal, his social conservatism played poorly to the young and workers are alienated by his economic strategy that harkens back to those of British Prime Minister Margret Thatcher, whom he greatly admires. His programs sound much like Donald Trump’s: cut jobless benefits and social services, lay off public workers, and give tax cuts to the wealthy.

 

Macron, an ex-Rothschild banker and former minister of economics under Hollande, is running neck and neck with Le Pen under the slogan “En Marche” (“On Our Way”), compelling critics on the left to ask “to what?” His platform is a mix of fiscal discipline and mild economic stimulation, and he is young, 39, telegenic, and a good speaker. But his policies are vague, and it is not clear there is a there, there.

 

Most polls indicate a Le Pen vs. Macron runoff, with Macon coming out on top, but that may be dangerous thinking. Macron’s support is soft. Only about 50 percent of those who say they intend to vote for him are “certain” of their vote. In comparison, 80 percent of Le Pen’s voters are “certain” they will vote for her.

 

There are, as well, some disturbing polling indications for the second round. According to the IFOP poll, some 38 percent of Fillon’s supporters say they will jump to Le Pen—two million voters—and 7 percent of Hamon voters and 11 percent of Melenchon backers would shift to Le Pen as well. What may be the most disturbing number, however, is that 45 percent of Melenchon voters say they will not vote if Macron is the candidate. Some 26 percent of Fillon’s voters and 21 percent of Hamon’s votes would similarly abstain.

 

Le Pen will need at least 15 million votes to win—the Front has never won more than six million nationally—but if turnout is low, Le Pen’s strongly motivated voters could put her into the Elysee Palace. In this way, France most resembles Britain prior to the Brixit vote.

 

If that comes to pass, Le Pen will push for a national referendum on the EU. There is no guarantee the French will vote to stay in the Union, and if they leave, that will be the huge trade organization’s death knell. The EU can get along without Britain, but it could not survive a Frexit.

 

Germany will hold national elections, Sept. 24, but the story there is very different than the one being played out in France. The government is currently a grand coalition between Chancellor Andrea Merkel’s conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU), the Bavarian-based Christian Social Union (CSU), and the Social Democrats(SD). The alliance has been a disaster for the SD, which at one point saw its poll numbers slip below 20 percent.

 

But German politics has suddenly shifted. On Merkel’s left, the Social Democrats changed leaders and have broken with industrial policies that have driven down the wages of German workers in order to make the country an export juggernaut. On the Chancellor’s right, the racist, neo-Nazi Alternative for Germany (AfG) has drained CDU and CSU voters to support a ban on immigration and a withdrawal from the EU, although the Alternative is dropping in the polls.

 

The game changer has been the sudden popularity of former EU President, Martin Schultz, the new leader of the Social Democrats. The SD is now neck and neck with the CDU/CSU front, and some polls show Schultz actually defeating Merkel. In terms of personal popularity, Schultz is now running 16 points ahead of Merkel. While the Chancellor’s CDU/CSU alliance tops the polls at 34 percent, the Social Democrats are polling at 32 percent and climbing.

 

Schultz has made considerable headway critiquing declining living standards. Germany has large numbers of poorly paid workers, and almost 20 percent of workers age 25 to 34 are on insecure, short-term contracts. Unemployment benefits have also been cut back, even though Germany’s economy is the most robust in Europe and the country has a $310 billion surplus.

 

In any case, the days when Merkel could pull down 40 percent of the vote are gone. Even if her coalition comes in number one, it may not have enough seats to govern, even if its traditional allies, the Free Democrats, make it back into the Bundestag.

 

That creates the possibility of the first so-called “red-red-green” national government of the SD, the left Die Linke Party, and the Green Party. Die Linke and the Greens are both polling at around 8 percent. Such an alliance currently runs several major cities, including Berlin. It would not be an entirely comfortable united front: the SD and the Greens are pro-EU, while Die Linke is highly critical of the organization.

 

But there is a model out there that gives hope.

 

Portugal is currently run by a three-party center-left to left alliance. Those parties also disagree on things like the EU, the debt, and NATO membership, but for the time being they have decided that stimulating the economy and easing the burden of almost decade of austerity trumps the disagreements.

And then there are the Italians.

 

While Italy has not scheduled elections, the defeat of Democratic Party leader and then Prime Minister Matteo Renzi’s constitutional referendum almost guarantees a vote sometime in the next six months.

 

Italy has one of the more dysfunctional economies in the EU, with one of the Union’s highest debt ratios and several major banks in deep trouble. It is the EU’s third largest economy, but growth is anemic and unemployment stubbornly high, particularly among the young.

 

Renzi’s center-left Democratic Party (PD) still tops the polls, but only just, and it has fallen nearly 15 points in two years. Nipping at its heels is the somewhat bizarre Five Star Party run by comedian Beppe Grillo, whose politics are, well, odd. Five Star is strongly opposed to the EU, and allies itself with several rightwing parties in the European Parliament. It applauded the election of Donald Trump. On the other hand, it has a platform with many progressive planks, including economic stimulation, increased social services, a guaranteed income for poor Italians, and government transparency. It is also critical of NATO.

 

Five Star has recently taken a few poll hits, because the Party’s Mayor of Rome has done a poor job keeping the big, sprawling city running—in truth, the ancient Romans found it a daunting task—and is caught up in a financial scandal. Some Democratic Party leaders are also being investigated for corruption.

 

The only other major parties in the mix are former Prime Minister Silvio Burlusconi’s center-right Forza Italia, which is polling around 13 percent, and the racist., xenophobic Northern League at 11.5 percent. The latter, which is based the northern Po Valley, made a recent effort to broaden its base by taking its campaign to Naples in southern Italy. The result was a riot with protestors tossing rocks, bottles and Molotov cocktails at Northern League leader Matteo Salvini.

 

There are informal talks going on about uniting the parties. Burlusconi has worked with the Northern League in the past.

 

There are also a gaggle of smaller parties in the parliament, ranging from the Left Ecology/Greens to the Brothers of Italy, none registering over 5 percent. But since whoever comes out on top will need to form a coalition, even small parties will likely punch above their weight.

 

If Five Star does come in first and patches together a government, it will press for a referendum on the EU, and there is no guarantee that Italians—battered by the austerity policies of the big trade group—won’t decide to bail like the British did. An Italexit would probably be a fatal blow to the EU.

 

Predicting election outcomes are tricky these days, the Brexit and the election of Donald Trump being cases in point. The most volatile of upcoming ballots are in France and Italy. Germany’s will certainly be important, but, even if Merkel survives, the center-right will be much diminished and the left will be stronger. And that will have EU-wide implications.

 

The European left is divided, but not all divisions are unhealthy, and a robust debate is not a bad thing. None of the problems Europe faces are simple. Is the EU salvageable? What are the alternatives to austerity? How do you tackle growing inequality and the marginalization of whole sections of society? How do you avoid the debt trap facing many countries, blocked by the EU’s economic strictures from pursuing any strategy other than more austerity?

 

In a recent interview, Yanis Varoufakis, former Greek economic minister and one of the founders of the left organization DiEM25, proposed a “New Deal” for Europe, where in “All Europeans should enjoy in their home country the right to a job paying a living wage, decent housing, high-quality health care and education, and a clean environment.”

 

The “Deal” has five goals that Varoufakis argues can be accomplished under the EU’s current rules and without centering more power in Brussels at the expense of democracy and sovereignty. These would include:

  • “Large-scale” investment in green technology.
  • Guaranteed employment with a living wage
  • An EU-wide anti-poverty fund.
  • Universal basic income.
  • Anti-eviction protection.

 

None of those goals will be easy to achieve, but neither can Europe continue on its current path. The rightwing “populists” may lose an election, but they aren’t going away.

 

Almost 40 years ago, British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher launched her neo-conservative assault on trade union rights, health care, education and social services with the slogan, “There is no other choice.” The world is still harvesting the bitter fruits of those years and the tides of hatred and anger they unleashed. It is what put Trump into the Oval Office and Le Pen within smelling distance of the French presidency.

 

But there is a choice, and it starts with the simple idea of the greatest good to the greatest number.

 

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